ANNA — As the field of teams shrinks and the opponents continue to have strong résumés, sometimes it’s the players who at the margins of the roster who will end up making the difference.
Even in a lineup of future college players, all-district standouts and multi-year starters, contributions can — and sometimes need to — come from anywhere.
So as the Van Alstyne Panthers finished off their sweep of Pottsboro, 4-1, in a Class 3A Region II quarterfinal series on Friday night, it was with their ace, Chandler David, on the mound allowing just two hits and striking out five while working around three walks and two hit by pitches.
But the domino effect on the mound carried over from the opener, when Zach Smith, who had 4.1 innings under his belt this season, came through with 5.1 innings of relief in a 10-inning win.
When the Panthers put together the deciding three-run outburst in the fifth, the tie-breaking run came on Conner Loftice’s RBI single to right. The sophomore did not have a varsity at-bat in the regular season.
Freshman Collin Reynolds got his first start of the season in left field and was responsible for three of the final five outs.
“We’re constantly telling people to be ready,” Panthers head coach Jimmy Haynes said. “That’s what it’s going to take, people to produce when you’re called upon.”
The collective effort put Van Alstyne (25-4) against Atlanta in a region semifinal series at Emory Rains. Game 1 is at 7 p.m. on Thursday with Games 2 & 3 at 4 p.m. on Saturday. It is the first trip to the fourth round for the Panthers since 2016.
Pottsboro (24-7), the District 9-3A champ, was trying to make the region semifinals for the second straight season. The Cardinals fought valiantly all season in tribute and remembrance of their head coach Bart Williams, who lost his battle with cancer in December.
“You have the community of Pottsboro. It kept all our guys going,” head coach Tyler Smith said. “They played for him all year long. They wanted to win it all for him. I know he’d be extremely proud of how they did.”
Williams was an assistant at Van Alstyne before taking over at Pottsboro in 2007. Haynes knew when the bracket came out and this match-up might happen, it would be emotional for everyone involved.
“I was just hoping I could hold it together,” he said.
Pottsboro brought the tying run to the plate with two outs in the sixth in its last best chance to force a deciding third game. Coby Langford was hit by a pitch with one away and then Grayson Watson had an infield single to third – the Cardinals’ first hit since Hayden Kent led off the game with one – before David got a strikeout to end the threat.
The Panthers took the lead for good in the bottom of the fifth when Reynolds reached on an error and Tyler Wilson singled to right center to put runners at the corners. After Wilson stole second, Loftice had an RBI single to right.
Rhett Gallagher followed with a bunt to plate Wilson and give Van Alstyne a 3-1 advantage.
Smith then made Pottsboro pay when it intentionally walked Samuel Tormos with two outs by hitting an RBI single to right.
“It didn’t fall our way. They got some big hits,” Smith said. “Our bats didn’t show up in those spots and their bats did. Hat’s off to Van Alstyne — they’re always in the playoffs this deep.”
After allowing an unearned run in the first, David hit Jasek Hooker to lead off the next inning but Gallagher threw him out trying to steal second. It was the first of nine consecutive outs as the Cardinals hit just one ball out of the infield in that span, which stretched to the fifth when he walked Hooker and Jett Carroll to lead off the frame.
Hooker stole third despite getting caught in a rundown but a batter later Carroll was thrown out trying to take second. A lineout to second and flyout to right kept the game deadlocked.
“We felt like if we could get to Game 2 with a win in Game 1, we’d be in really good shape,” Haynes said. “CD’s been our No. 1 all year long.”
The Panthers put a pair on to open the fourth when Tormos walked and Zach Smith dunked a single to left. Nathan Cuthbertson hit into a double play and Tormos was stranded at third following another groundout.
Van Alstyne had to make a lineup change when Ethan Litzkow made a diving catch in right center to rob Langford of extra bases. Litzkow landed on his right shoulder and was forced from the game.
Cooper Lyons quelled a two-out rally in the third after a single up the middle from Wilson and a walk to Loftice. Gallagher grounded out sharply for a force at third.
Tormos tied the game at one with a home run to left field leading off the bottom of the second. A bigger inning was wiped out when Langford turned a double play after Smith reached on an error.
Pottsboro took advantage of a pair of errors in the top of the first to get on the board. David nearly escaped unscathed after Kent led off with a single up the middle and Robert Goins reached on an error when he bunted to put runners at the corners.
An infield pop-up and a strikeout preceded a ground ball to second but another miscue kept the inning alive and Kent scored on the play.